LANCASTER County in Pennsylvania in the United States is known for its small towns with whimsical names like Intercourse, Blue Ball, Bird In Hand and Paradise.
GO ON, TAKE A RIDE : The horse-drawn carriage is the main mode of transport for the Amish, and some make their living by giving buggy rides to tourists.
Just like their names, the towns are quaint places with old-fashioned ice cream shops and century-old guesthouses.
But what is more striking about Lancaster County is the group of Old Order Amish living mostly on farms around the region.
Think Little House On The Prairie meets contemporary America.
The Old Order Amish is a community that leads an ascetic religion-centred lifestyle based on its interpretation of Biblical principles.
Their way of living has hardly changed for hundreds of years: They do not drive cars, do not use electricity and reject technology - by choice, says a guide on the tour I take of an Amish house recently.
Their children attend classes in one-room schoolhouses, where they learn maths and English but not science, and do not go on to high school or college.
One distinguishing feature is their horse carriages, or buggies, that are used in place of motorised vehicles to go to the market or to visit friends and relatives.
In Lancaster County, which is also known as Amish Country, buggies are as common as cars, and the two-lane main road has one lane set aside for the horse-drawn vehicles.
Travelling along Highway 30, the main expressway that links some of the small towns, the first hint that I am approaching Amish Country are road signs cautioning drivers to be careful of the buggies.
Soon, I drive past a black buggy galloping along the road. A boxy contraption with huge wooden spoked wheels, it cuts a severe silhouette and looks like something out of the 18th century.
OUT TO PASTURE: Many Amish run dairy farms, and their houses (background) look like any other house, except that they are not connected to the electricity grid.
The Amish I see along the way are dressed simply in homemade attire. The men wear straight-cut suits - no pockets or belts because frills are not allowed - and broad-brimmed hats. Married men are required to keep beards.
The women don solid-colour dresses with long sleeves and a calf-length skirt covered with an apron, and they always wear a prayer cap.
Off the grid
THE next day, I go on a guided tour of a set-up of a typical Amish home.
"Unlike what many people think, the Amish do not form a village of their own to live separately from the rest of the world," says my guide. "Instead, they live side-by-side with non-Amish neighbours."
Even though Amish houses look just like any other house, you can tell it is an Amish abode if you see a clothesline full of black or solid-coloured clothes, she says.
SUITS THEM FINE: Amish men's homemade outfits usually comprise a simple suit and broadbrimmed hats. Married Amish men are also expected to keep beards.
Another sign is the names on their letterboxes - Stoltzfus, King, Fisher, Beiler and Lapp are the most common Amish names in Lancaster County.
A more telling sign is that an Amish house will never have a connection to the electricity grid. Hence, it has none of the modern conveniences - televisions, microwave ovens, telephones, computers, the Internet and even electric lights - that most people take for granted. The Amish view is that an electricity hook-up could introduce temptations and lead to a breakdown of church and family life.
But lest you think otherwise, the Amish do live very well without electricity.
No electric lights? The guide highlights a kerosene lamp sitting on the kitchen counter.
No telephones? "They write letters or visit in person," she says, pointing to a list of zip codes hung on the wall.
Someone in my group, intrigued by the austerity of the Amish lifestyle, asks whether they have recreational activities.
As it turns out, the Amish do know how to have fun. They visit friends, the men and boys go fishing or play baseball, and the women get together for quilting sessions. Teenagers also have barn and supper parties and singing sessions.
From the inn I stay at in the town of Strasburg, I spot buggies going up and down the road even way past midnight. "Teenagers staying out late socialising," says my guide when I ask her about it.
Closely knit community
ON MY third day, I drive to various little towns. Occasionally, open-topped buggies amble past and their passengers wave and smile cheerily at me.
Amish Country is a beautiful place with low-lying farmhouses amid rolling hills and crop fields peppered with cows, buggies and the occasional windmill used to generate power.
Traditionally, the Amish earn a living as farmers, planting cash crops and running dairy farms.
However, the burgeoning Amish population - each family has an average of seven or eight children - means that there is an increasing lack of farmland. This has driven some Amish to alternative occupations like carpentry, setting up shops or even working in factories.
An ascetic lifestyle aside, the Amish have created a social order that can be said to be remarkable, points out Donald B Kraybill, author of The Amish: Why They Enchant Us.
They are a tight-knit community which takes care of its own members. There is virtually no homelessness, unemployment and crime. Divorce rates are low, and physical and child abuses are rare.
CHOC THIS OUT: Indulge in chocolate treats at Hershey's Chocolate World, a 45-minute drive from Lancaster County.
I drop in at a large family-run bakeshop which sells homemade preserves, pastries and other handicrafts like hand-sewn quilts. The business is manned by a few Amish teenage girls who speak with regular American accents and say things like "have a nice day".
They also wear sneakers - black - underneath their long dresses.
Later, I visit Wal-Mart and encounter an Amish family stocking up on supplies, their family buggy parked outside. But I never did find the right occasion or perhaps the courage to actually engage them in conversation to find out more about their lives.
My guide had said that they are a very private people and I left it at that. But I know I will never forget their commitment to their chosen way of life.
ST Photos: Tan Keng Yao
5 THINGS TO DO
1 Do take a guided tour of Amish Country with the Amish Experience (www.amishexperience. com), where guides who have been living with the Amish for decades will give you a deeper insight into their lifestyle
A package including a bus tour of the Amish countryside, a visit to an Amish house and a screening of an Amish film costs US$34.95 (S$53).
2 Do go for family-style dining at all-you-can-eat restaurants where you sit at long tables with other customers and pass heaped platters of food around the table.
Dishes served are typical Pennsylvania Dutch fare like chicken pot pie, buttered noodles, apple dumplings and shoofly pie.
Try the Plain & Fancy Farm (3121 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand, tel: 717-768-4400 ) and Good 'N Plenty Restaurant (150 East Brook Road, Smoketown, tel: 717-394-7111). A family-style dining meal costs around US$20 per head.
3 Do stop by an Amish roadside stand for homemade root beer and home-baked breads. Amish handicrafts and handmade furniture shops are also worth a look. These businesses are closed on Sundays.
4 Do respect the privacy of the Amish and do not trespass into their homes.
5 Do go to Hershey's Chocolate World (right, 251 Park Boulevard, Hershey, PA 17033), a giant sweets retail shop, and take a 10-minute tour of a mock-up of a chocolate factory. Entrance is free.
You can also visit Hershey Park, a theme park next to the Chocolate World, which costs US$45.95 for adults and US$26.95 for children per day. Hershey's Chocolate World and Hershey Park are in the town of Hershey, a 45-minute drive away from Lancaster County.
1 Don't scare the horses on the road by tailgating or sounding your horn at them. Accidents, sometimes fatal, have been known to happen.
2 Don't take photographs of the Amish. If you really must, ask first, but do not be offended if you are turned down.
Lancaster County is a one-hour- 40-minute drive from Philadelphia. Philadelphia Trolley Works (www.phillytour.com/serviceamish. asp) runs day trips to Lancaster County from Philadelphia. It costs US$109 (S$165) per adult.